“Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become.”
J. D. Vance’s bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy has been brought to the screen by Ron Howard. The memoir recounted Vance’s childhood in the Ohio Rust Belt, where he was raised by a mother struggling with addiction and his grandparents who came from rural Appalachia. After spending time in the Marines, Vance went on to college, then Yale Law School. The film carries the story arc, but comes up short on the kind of insight that Vance brought to the book.
The film focuses on the troubled family relationship. As Vance (played as adult by Gabriel Basso and as a youth by Owen Asztolos) is preparing for interviews for a summer internship at a prestigious law firm (a job he needs to be able to continue law school), he gets a call from his sister that their mother Bev (Amy Adams) is hospitalized because of a heroin overdose. He has to make a long drive from New Haven to Ohio, deal with trying to get his mother in to rehab, then drive back in hopes of making an important meeting.
As the trip plays out, we see flashbacks to his youth. His mother, while loving, constantly battled substance abuse. The more nurturing relationship in his life was his grandmother, Memaw (Glenn Close). Memaw was a no-nonsense woman who embodies the values of hard work and honesty that Vance, in his memoir, associates with the rural Appalachian community. After one of Bev’s breakdowns, J.D. moves in with Memaw, who pushes him to excel in school.
The film becomes not so much a story of those values as a story about a family struggling with addiction. It becomes about J.D.’s mixed feelings about his love for his family and the struggle to succeed in another world. That was all a part of the book, but the book became such a success because it offered much more.
Films by their nature have a great deal of voyeurism. We are watching other people’s lives from a distance. The same is true of memoirs and novels. In his memoir, Vance took us into the white working-class culture that he grew up in. He does not look down at it. He values it. He shows us the trials, frustrations, and the values that have led to alienation. The voyeurism of the memoir seemed to lessen the distance the reader might have felt in thinking about Appalachia and the working-class. The film boils down to a less helpful voyeurism. We watch a family in its pain, but we are always a bit removed.
When the book came out in 2016 (a few months before the election of President Trump), it served as a kind of bridge between two segments of our society. Vance has a foot in both worlds. He knows just how easy it is to settle into despair. But he also exemplifies the ability to advance through a strong work ethic. Early in the film we see J.D. panicking at a formal dinner over all the silverware. But we can tell that this is a world that he is growing into. That social and political insight were the strength of the memoir, but is missing from the film.
Hillbilly Elegy is playing in select theaters (where open). It will be available on Netflix on November 24.
For audio of our conversation with Ron Howard, click here.
Photos courtesy of Netflix.